A female author retreats to her family home and discovers she is being watched by members of a cult that want to make her their leader. Queen of the Dead is a short film, directed by Justin Head.
As a kid, Justin Head grew up watching all kind of movies. However, it was the Universal Studios monster movies such as Dracula and Frankenstein that he would grow to love. The sense of atmosphere and visual style would prove a big influence on his work. Hi first exposure to filmmaking was taking the Universal Studios backlot tour when he was 9 years old. From that day, he decided that he wanted to go into filmmaking. When he was 14, he started playing around with a MiniDV camera his parents had just purchased. He made one short film after the other, camera to camera, honing his craft of horror films as he went along. He would write, direct, edit, and a later point in time do the makeup effects for some of his films.
He started taking film classes at Saddleback College in 2008 where he graduated with an Associates Degree in 2013. However, he would produce his biggest output of films upon enrolling at the Art Institute in 2013. He's directed eight short films (most of them horror films), each one more disturbing than the last. These include Midnight Snack, D-Date, Lilith, A Dog to Kill For, A Thief and a Cop, Grave Mistake, and most recently his senior thesis Renaissance. All have been produced through his production banner Slasher Films which specializes in retro style horror/exploitation films. His films generally feature sadistic violence, bizarre characters, and a dark sense of humor. Justin has also worked on several short films at Ai as a grip and Special Effects Makeup Artist creating knife wounds, eye gouging, throat slitting, etc.
In 2015, he graduated from the Art Institute of Orange County with a Bachelors of Science in Digital Film and Video Production and is building funds to make the big move to Los Angeles.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
Well I decided I wanted to make films after visiting Universal Studios on my ninth birthday. Taking the Studio Tour made me realize that's the career I would ultimately pursue. My parent's later bought a DV Camcorder in 2004 that I used the next year to shoot my first short film when I was fifteen. A supernatural horror film called The Visitor. It was written, directed by and starred me in three different roles. I didn't have the group of frequent actors and crew that I worked with currently, so I utilized myself and my parent in key roles. Looking back, its not a very good film but it got the ball rolling.
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
The inspiration behind Queen of the Dead was quite a few things. The biggest influence was the films of a horror movie producer, Val Lewton. He made horror films like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie back in the 1940's. Films that were very ahead of their time. One of his films, The Seventh Victim, about a woman in a Satanic Cult had a major impact on the script of Queen of the Dead. Also, I wanted to make a black and white, gothic horror film, which I had done with my first short film to lackluster results. So I started writing a script for a Gothic horror film about a cult.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?
Without a doubt the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry is getting a crew together. I mean a decent sized crew of like five to ten people if that. I'll usually find myself with the cast and a crew consisting of myself, the director of photography, sound person, makeup and one or two other people to help with lighting or anyother rigs on set. That's what Queen of the Dead was like on all the shooting days, even the hardest shoot day where we built a fake cemetery in a garage.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
I found myself trying to raise money through GoFundMe on this film, but I knew it would only serve as a backup and would have to self fund the film myself. Lo and behold, one friend donated $20, which was generous of them but that was the only donation I received. I made a film with friends a few years back and remember, getting people to donate to our indiegogo campaign was a chore.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
Top three favorite director's would have to George A. Romero, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. With Romero, it was his determination to get his movie's made without any help from a major studio and his penchant for social commentary. David Lynch for his surrealism and the foreboding mood in his work. Martin Scorsese because of his stylized editing and camera work, Taxi Driver is the film of his which has impacted my work the most.
How did your project go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?
I had written the script for Queen of the Dead in 2017 with Trista Robinson and Greg Standifer in mind. We actually met while we working on another film I wrote and produced for my friend Marsh Allen called Having Your Cake. We all became very friendly. Trista is a horror fanatic, so she especially wanted to work with me. Greg had never done a horror movie before and wanted to do one. Around the time I was about to start Pre-Production in early 2018, Trista and Greg had become SAG actors, so this film became a SAG project and they were approved to be in the film as were a few other SAG actors. A lot of the actors and even extras that worked on the film were old friends in and out of the world.
How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?
In 2019, I showed the film to a few close friends and at first the reactions where very mixed due to the film's very ambigious nature and feelings that the technical aspect outshined any attempts at storytelling or character. However, it was after those initial responses that the film turned around and started receiving positive feedback. Initially the film was getting rejections from various film festivals until about mid to late 2019 when that turned around. Now its being requested by various film festivals and has been soldiering on through out its festival run. In March of this year, I'm planning on releasing it on YouTube and see how it fares.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent films?
In regards to making, I would say make what you love. While you should always be budget conscious, still push to make films that you love. Don't just go, "oh well I want to make this scifi movie with space ships but don't have the budget for the perfect look." Find a way to make that ship on your dime, even if its a ply wood piece of junk or a toy spaceship, used the tools of filmmaking to make it look good. You're passion for the material will come through your work. Don't think you can make a post apocalyptic film on zero budget? Find a way, adapt your vision to the circumstances but don't be afraid if some of the cracks in your budget start to show. Bottom-line, just make the film, keep saying you can't make the film you really want to make because of this and that, then you won't. For distribution, streaming seems to be current route to go with the pandemic and all, but prior to all this and maybe after, talk to local art houses. Indie theaters, some friends and I put together a film fest at our local indie theater The Frida Cinema in Downtown Santa Ana in 2019. The Frida does Drive-in PopUps and occasionally shows new films. They're very open to helping indie filmmakers have a place to show their films as are most art house theaters.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
Currently I'm writing a feature film with my co-writer set during Christmas time called White Elephant. I don't want to give too much away but let's just say, its about rabid teenagers attacking their non rabid in a cabin in the woods. I've also written a script for a Slasher Film that will be my next project after that one.
Why do you make films?
I make films because I love the art of cinema. I love crafting a story that allows me to venture into another world, creating a character that I can explore and study. I process of shooting films, the camaraderie I feel when I'm with my friends making films. I live for the stress of putting shooting as well as the opportunity to create something new each time. Making films is exciting and makes me feel alive everytime I make a new one. I also just love editing, stitching everything together and cutting up with unique ways to make the film stand out.